Follow the Yellow Dirt Road
In biblical times, the Frankincense Trail was paved with gold or, to be exact, squat, silver-barked trees that produced some of the most coveted incense in the Middle East. About 2,000 years ago, caravans of camels would cut a 500-mile swath through the desert, hauling the "golden resin" to trading posts in Oman and beyond. Used for perfume, medicine, and to embalm corpses, frankincense was the Pashmina scarf of its day, sought after by the likes of Alexander the Great, the Queen of Sheba, and the Three Wise Men. Trade flourished for centuries in the southern region of Dhofar, from the oasis port of Shisr to the fortified cities of Khor Rori and Al-Balid, turning Oman into a very wealthy region on par with the modern oil-rich nations now occupying its borders. Yet, like all bull markets, the good times came to an end. Oman's ports fell into disrepair and layers of sand erased all traces of this once lucrative trade route.
In the 1990s, however, a U.S. space shuttle saw hints of the trail and traced the yellow-dirt road to Shisr, where camels and merchants once fueled up before crossing the vast sea of sand known as the Empty Quarter. Now, fragments of Oman's heyday remain, including the ancient ruins of Al-Balid and Khor Rori. Plus, some archaeologists claim that the fabled lost city of the Arabian Nights may reside in Shisr. And as for frankincense? Traders no longer have to navigate treacherous terrain to secure some of the smelly stuffit's now available at any local mall.
It is not wise to retrace the Frankincense Trail, since camels are a lumpy ride and the desert is far from the romantic scene pictured in Lawrence of Arabia. Visiting the three main areas (Shisr, Khor Rori, and Al-Balid) in Omar's southern province of Dhofar is a smarter move. The ruins of Khor Rori and Al-Balid are still in a sorry stateovergrown, vandalized, and reduced to rubblebut the area is worth a visit if only for the jaw-dropping scenery. A good base is Salalah, the region's capital, where you can stock up on bottled water and hire a guide to show you around the fenced-in sites.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication